Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Good intentions do not substitute for good outcomes

There is a movement in the US, among Social Justice Warriors and others, to increase the opportunities of some who are seen as less privileged by moving them to live among others who are seen as more privileged. This has taken on the force of the Federal government with the Obama administration seeking to punish neighborhoods who are deemed to have insufficient diversity and who will be required to make available housing for the less fortunate.

Independent of the constitutionality of such actions, there is the as important question of whether such policies work. The intentions are good but are they effective? The advocates argue essentially a human capital effect. That poor people are a product of bad civic environments and that putting them in locations with good schools, rule of law, safe environments, etc. can help increase their human capital as evidenced by increased graduation rates, increased labor force participation rates, college attendance, etc. It is a plausible theory but the evidence is murky, undermined in part by the fact that so much of the research is advocacy motivated, i.e. the researchers want the results to be true. On the other side of the argument is the contention that culture and family values shape behaviors to a greater extent than do physical environments and that simply moving people around avoids addressing the root causes of the dysfunction.

The research is also undermined by a decided asymmetry. Almost all the research looks only at the positive outcomes to the putative beneficiaries and none of the costs to them or the costs to the recipient community. The rare research in community costs suggest that they may be non-trivial, (see American Murder Mystery by Hanna Rosin.)

In this environment of incomplete, unclear and motivated research, it is useful sometimes to see what is going on in other countries. Moving to Opportunity or Isolation? Network Effects of a Randomized Housing Lottery in Urban India by Sharon Barnhardt, Erica Field, Rohini Pande suggests that the human capital cost/benefit equation is perhaps not what has been suggested, at least in India.

From the abstract:
A housing lottery in an Indian city provided winning slum dwellers the opportunity to move into improved housing on the city’s periphery. Fourteen years later, relative to lottery losers, winners report improved housing farther from the city center, but no change in family income or human capital. Winners also report increased isolation from family and caste networks and lower access to informal insurance. We observe significant program exit: 34% of winners never moved into the subsidized housing and 32% eventually exited. Our results point to the importance of considering social networks when designing housing programs for the poor.
In other words, of all the winners, only 45% actually moved to and stayed in their new communities. Their physical housing improved but there were no other measurable benefits gained and they lost some advantages that they had in their old environment.

We want to do well by others but good intentions do not substitute for good outcomes.

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